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Born on the wrong Side of the Fence

Biography and Memories of an Austrian Migrant

1936-1947

Bruno Ehlich

2005, 2009 Bruno Ehlich

Chapter 2

Austria

    I never saw our home again. Mum went back once and all that was left was our foot pedal sewing machine which she recovered in 1942. So again, on our fourth shift back home to Austria we were living with relatives. I was handed over to my Aunt Anna who had no children and whose husband was in the navy submarines. My brother lived with my grandparents on my father's side. My grandparents on my mother's side lived 30 kilometers south of Vienna, in a place called Weigelsdorf. More about this later.

    Move number four, back into the lovely Vienna Woods, back with Aunt Rosa, Uncle Hans and Aunt Anna. Aunt Rosa's children, my cousins Walter and Herbert, now had gone into the Luftwaffe. Herbert went as a pilot and Walter as a rear gunner. Both trained in dive bombers called "Stukas."

    At this time I had to live with my mother's sister called Aunt Anna and her husband Hans. They had a little grocery shop not very far away from my Aunt Rosa so I had the good luck to have the best of two aunts living next to each other. As I mentioned, Uncle Hans was a submariner and after his sub was sunk in the English Channel he was one of only five to escape the sinking vessel. He never recovered from the rapid ascent from 30 meters down and had a severe mental condition. Because of this he was sent home to manage his grocery store again. He died of throat cancer after the war.

    My cousins Walter and Herbert survived the war. Herbert was shot down over England and became a prisoner of war. He returned to Germany in 1946. Walter was captured by the Americans and returned home in 1946 only to die of cancer in 1991. Herbert is still living in Germany.

    I started school in 1942 and witnessed firsthand the burning of all books and literature from the most famous Jewish intellectuals. A high percentage of teachers, doctors, engineers, architects, artists, and religious persons of the Jewish faith were removed and sadly exterminated. Only a few survived the war. In the early years of the Hitler era many Jewish families migrated to different parts of our globe, mostly to the United States of America. Albert Einstein was one of them.

    Schooling under the Nazis in 1942 was not easy. Rain or shine, hot or cold, we had to stand on the parade ground and sing our well-trained Nazi songs. We, at the age of six, had to greet, every time you passed a teacher, with a loud "Heil Hitler!" or the cane was given. Heil Hitler in the morning; Heil Hitler in the evening. School started at eight in the morning and finished at four in the afternoon with one-hour midday for lunch and listening to German military music. On Saturday we had to attend school until midday and in the afternoon it was straight to the Hitler Youth camp for training.

    We all sat at a large table and had to stick live ammunition into metal belts and these were sent straight to the battle front or training camps around Germany. Talk about slave labor, but we loved it, anything for our beloved Fuhrer. Funny, but one thing stuck in my mind: The rifle cartridges had wooden projectiles, not copper and lead bullets as normal infantry ammunition has and they all had different colors. Some of them were hollowed out and had phosphorous or other chemicals in them. God only knows. Some were solid wood. I also noticed at that time that the cartridges, usually in brass, were actually just plain steel cartridges.

    In the later months we changed to 20mm cannon ammunition. Again we stuffed the cartridges with cordite sticks and crimped the projectiles into them. But, as young as we were, we also did some silly things. We took cannon cartridges, filled them up with cordite, put a woolen wick in them and crimped them closed. We then went up to our castle and lit the fuses and threw them into the gardens below, where they exploded with an almighty bang and frightened the people in the village out of their wits.  From then on, all cartridges were counted and we boys had a lovely forced march to do, in rain and thunder, and a big hiding from Mum.

    Thousands of schoolchildren had to work on Saturdays for the war effort. Reward, well, if you did well you received a lovely shiny badge you had to wear to inspire the other children and Mum. So the months wore on and we learned marching, climbing, crawling and, you would not believe it, shooting with small caliber rifles -- at six years of age!

    One day we heard this almighty bang and as we left school on our way home I witnessed the most horrible scene of my life. A military train, returning from the Russian front and loaded with hundreds of wounded German soldiers, hit an outgoing German troop transport train head-on. As the two steam engines compacted with each other, one of the boilers exploded on impact and cooked the driver and fireman instantly and one of them was ejected onto the footpath minus his top torso. On the other locomotive the fireman got pushed into the firebox by the forward pushing coal and was consumed instantly. One hundred and fifty soldiers were killed outright and hundreds mortally injured as most of them were entombed in the overturned carriages.

    We schoolchildren were ushered quickly past the scene and I heard the screaming and moaning only 20 feet away. What stuck most in my young mind were the soldiers running around with collected body parts and line after line of stacked dead bodies. What really topped the lot was the almighty bang and shock wave as the other boiler blew up and sent all of us children and adults flying. I landed in some neighbors' front garden with a few bad scratches and could not hear until some hours later.

    The investigation which followed was conducted by the Gestapo. My uncle, who was the station master in Purkersdorf, found that the rail points had been shifted as this part of the rails were used as a crossover shunting stretch. This was told to me later, after the war, again by my Uncle Hans as I told him my experiences from my younger years. They never found the culprit but Uncle Hans told me that days after the accident 300 Jewish families were deported to a concentration camp and some communists were shot in revenge.

    Winter 1942 was a bad one in Europe and my brother Fritz suffered so much with asthma that my mother applied to the relevant German office to be evacuated to a better climatic area. The climate around Vienna was too detrimental for my brother's health. Once again we were on the move, for the fifth time. The saddest thing of all was that we had not seen our father since 1940.

    My mother followed my father around when he was on leave from the Army. Hitler, in the last stages of the war, preferred that most soldiers who were due for recreation leave spend their time in an occupied country other than the German Reich. This was because the soldiers would have seen the tremendous damage done to the cities and factories and they would also have been told about the massive death rate amongst the civilian population and would then have spread this bad news amongst the soldiers on the front.

    One of those sad stories which came to light after the war was told to me by a Polish prisoner after he was rescued from the concentration camp Lager Treblinka. A woman and her children, a girl aged six and a boy aged four and a half, received a letter from the Russian front in which her husband, a high ranking officer, asked her to meet him in Warsaw, Poland, to spend his recreation time with her and their children. This officer had not seen his wife and children for two and a half years. He had been severely wounded, losing an arm in combat, and, of course, had not told this to his wife at the time.

    Excited about meeting her husband, she packed her suitcase and a large box of goods like bacon, cheese, ham, etc., for him and his mates on the notorious Russian front. Also included were letters from wives and girlfriends which were to be given to comrades in his unit.

    On arriving at the railway station with her children, she was confronted with a band playing military music. The train itself was covered with flowers and streamers; the joyful atmosphere had her heart racing. She asked one of the passengers if this was the right train to Warsaw, Poland, and she was told "yes."

    The train departed with the strains of "Deutschland, Deutschland ueber alles." The hundreds of men, women and children of all ages on board should have raised some warning and suspicion in her but in all this excitement, she never considered that anything was strange on this train. Firstly there was not a soldier to be seen or any Nazi officials. After the departure she asked a young man where all those people were going to and was told they were all Jews and were going to Poland to be resettled. At that point she started worrying and considered getting off that train at the next stop, but the train never stopped; it continued on for six hours. Finally, deep into the night, they pulled into some railway siding and harsh voices commanded them to leave all belongings on the train and to line up outside on the platform, women and children to the left, men on the right. They all started to wonder why all this?

    At this point this woman and her children approached a high ranking German officer and told him that she was on the wrong train and she was on her way to see her also high ranking officer husband on leave in Warsaw. The officer inspected her papers and told her, "Sorry, Mitgegangen Mitgefangen," you went with us, now you are not allowed to leave. She must have, at that point, realized that she was actually transported to a concentration camp.

    Later, after the war, this Polish ex-prisoner who overheard all this and, of course, by a miracle survived,  told the American Red Cross officer that she was separated from her five year old boy and with her daughter landed up in the gas chamber that night with the Jewish resettlers. All that was left in the morning was the ashes. The boy was never found. (For reference, read the story about the concentration camp Treblinka). By some miracle, her luggage with her name was later found. Would she have been released and reunited with her husband and then told him what she had seen in that concentration camp? Had this been spread around it would have had all sorts of consequences for the Nazi Party.

    This was told to me just after the war and I always connect this story with my mother chasing my father around. Well, that's love I suppose! Mum saw my father, but we children nearly forgot how he looked. Photographs and letters hardly made up for the real thing. We were lucky that he finally came home at all and that he survived this carnage.

Contents                   Chapter 3